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Human Nature

October 14, 2008

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

Chesterton (1908)

… some American literati have professed their naïve belief that temptation and coercion are really the same thing, that nobody could be asked to resist temptation. (If somebody puts a pistol to your heart and orders you to shoot your best friend, then you simply must shoot him. Or, as it was argued – some years ago in connection with a quiz show scandal in which a university professor had hoaxed the public – when so much money is at stake, who could possibly resist?) The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible. In contrast to these confusions the reproach of self-righteousness raised against those who do judge is age-old; but that does not make it any the more valid. Even the judge who condemns a murderer can still say when he goes home: “and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Arendt (1963),

Those who wish to declare themselves to be either more compassionate or more enlightened than others are keen to appeal to the inherent goodness or innocence of a badly behaved child. Claiming that a fifteen year old who tells their teacher to “fuck off” has actually done something morally wrong, let alone saying that such a student deserves to be punished, is seen as unenlightened and unfair. Those who advocate blame and punishment are seen as either cruel tyrants who hate the adorable little kiddiewinks or superstitious primitives who have no understanding of the science of human behaviour.

There is, of course, a problem with the suggestion that children are inherently good or innocent: it is not true. Children do bad things all the time. This is not a surprise as, of course, we adults do bad things all the time too and for the same reason. It is in the nature of human beings to fall short of moral perfection. We do not achieve moral perfection even for a short time, the best we can hope to do is to seek to recognise our moral failings and consider them grounds for admitting our fault; resolve not to repeat the offence; attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way try to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong.

There are problems here because what I am describing are the religious concepts of Sin (literally “falling short”) and Repentance. In suggesting an existing inclination to moral failure I am echoing at least part of the doctrine of Original Sin. This is not to say these ideas rely on a religious perspective. What I have talked about here can be deduced from obvious observations of both the world around us and one’s own inner moral world, but that doesn’t stop them being seen as religious ideas. It may even be this that causes the difficulties and the claims to greater rationality of those who pretend that, morally, children are either blank slates or, worse, natural saints. We are in a culture where people don’t like to use religious concepts in moral reasoning and so there is an incentive to replace this view of morality with another more “modern” (or “progressive”) one. “Sin” in particular has become devalued, often in two opposite directions. One is to view it as simply a euphemism for sexual activity, as in “living in sin”. The other is to view it only as conspicuous, serious wrong-doing, leaving us without the terminology to discuss either our personal failings or the everyday failings of humanity.

Without the concepts of Sin and Repentance, whether they are expressed in religious or secular ways, we are at a loss to deal with moral issues, except by ignoring them. Ignoring our moral failings is something many are loathe to do explicitly – people usually stop short of announcing their own sainthood – but such a claim is implicit in any moral theory that ignores what it is actually like to do wrong. Sometimes they don’t stop short of virtual self-canonisation. Two teachers I know told me that they never sinned. (My response was to suggest it was about time they started.) But if we accept as genuine the universal human experience of doing, saying or thinking things that our best judgement tells us are wrong, then without an acceptance of our inclination to sin and the need to repent when we do so, we simply cannot explain our own moral universe. We cannot explain where we have been or where we should go. Without the concepts of imperfect human beings needing to confront their weaknesses, we end up with a contradiction: our convictions and beliefs are in opposition to our inclinations and actions. If we deny that this contradiction exists due to our own imperfect natures, then it can only be resolved by

1) abandoning our convictions

or

2) denying our responsibility for what we feel or do.

The first of these options (abandoning any principle in response to the inclination not to comply with it) is often disguised as a dislike for Puritanism or hypocrisy. “Why should anyone suggest I shouldn’t do what I want to do?” people ask, even in cases such as speeding or smoking where the harm (or potential harm) to one’s self or others is obvious. When applied to schools this takes the form of a mindless anti-authoritarianism. Teachers are portrayed as ogres, driving students to bad behaviour through their unreasonable requests and unpleasant personalities. Any teacher who has been told they were at fault for enforcing the school rules will be familiar with this form of disapproval.

The second option (denying responsibility for feelings and actions) is one that people are sometimes cautious about applying to themselves as it does have implications of insanity, although people increasingly do seem willing to express even obviously selfish feelings as if they can’t be judged for having them. It is, however, seen as tolerant and broadminded to deny the responsibility of others for their actions. Where once being non-judgemental meant refraining from the casting of stones, it now seems to require looking at the obviously guilty and saying “well they couldn’t help themselves”. Temptation can now be a considered a medical or psychological condition. Examples of this are easy to identify, just by flicking through a newspaper. I’m sure it was with a great deal of sympathy and good intentions that those who were inclined to drink excessively were told they were suffering from the “disease” of alcoholism, but I wonder if they would have accepted such a diagnosis if they knew it would lead to the promiscuous being diagnosed with the laughable condition of “sex addiction”. Where psychological and medical explanations don’t explain our mistakes, then the alternative is simply to separate actions from consequences. The results of our actions are simply quirks of fate beyond our control. It is presumably for this reason that newspapers now report women “falling pregnant” in the same way somebody might “fall ill” or “fall over”.

With regards to education, the belief that children are not responsible for their actions is the default position for those attempting to reconcile their denial of human nature with the rather obvious fact that all children do bad things. The usual explanations of why children are not to be held responsible for their actions are:

For those of you reading this who are teachers, is this sounding familiar?

References

Arendt, Hannah,Eichmann in Jerusalem, Revised Edition,Penguin, 1963

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908

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28 comments

  1. “Children do bad things all the time. This is not a surprise as, of course, we adults do bad things all the time too and for the same reason.”
    It is widely accepted in the legal profession that subnormally intelligent adults are less responsible for their crimes.
    If we accept this, it leads to the following conclusion. Unless children are equally intelligent and less malleable than adults – unless they are exactly the same intellectually – then surely adults do bad things too… but for reasons that might be different. Because there is an intellectual difference there that can affect the causes behind their behaviour.

    “Temptation can now be a considered a medical or psychological condition.”
    If obessive-compulsion is not a medical condition, how would you deal with it? Is there any theoretical framework for understanding compulsion that you could use that would deny it any medical aspects? I’m afraid that, currently, the thinking on stuff like sex addiction is “if it’s a compulsion to have sex, it’s a medical condition”. So you would have to demedicalise the whole term itself, if indeed there are people with a compulsion to have sex. Does this mean that people who compulsively handwash do not have a psychological condition?

    Fear is understandable. Phobias, as an irrational fear, are silly but we can accept they exist. However, agoraphobia seems silly – why be scared of going outside? Is stepping one foot out of your house really that hard?
    I would argue that sex addiction lies on a similar continuum of silliness. We can all sympathise with compulsive hand-washers, but compulsive sex? While I do admit it’s a joke, some funny things are true. And the practise of using such a diagnosis as an excuse is deplorable, but not the same thing as the medical diagnosis being false in all cases. I might complain that I don’t want to visit you because I have agoraphobia, this does not mean agoraphobia is a lie.

    “With regards to education, the belief that children are not responsible for their actions is the default position for those attempting to reconcile their denial of human nature with the rather obvious fact that all children do bad things.”
    Here is an alternative idea. The prevalence of bad behaviour is so terrifying that either you have to write off students as a bad lot and quit teaching, or find other explanations. It is easy to see that many badly behaved students come from backgrounds of broken homes, poverty, crime etc. Therefore the backgrounds are blamed, and in an attempt to be optimistic about a difficult job helping the unhelpable, these determining factors are expanded and enlarged until nothing else can be seen.
    You do not have to argue that the whole standards of morality have disappeared (or couch secular morality in religious terms) in order to accept this idea. All you have to do is accept the huge difficulty of addressing, in a school, such issues which can undoubtedly affect a students life. The sad side effect of this is that students end up being taught there are no consequences to their actions. This is undoubtedly false, and I think too that schools should become demanding ethically. If you are not doing it right, you are wrong, and although some students should be understood as being disadvantaged in many ways, this does not mean that they are not in control to the extent that they can ignore ethical codes. The only thing they can be excused for is the reason why they need to be taught these codes in the first place, but once they know them they must do their best to follow them.

    I think that children are different to adults.
    I think that we should take into account their backgrounds.
    I think that we should help them understand that, whatever the rules and experiences they have had outside of school, in school and society there are certain ethical codes and rules that must not be transgressed.
    Finally, I agree substantially with you that students are subject to blame and to punishment.

    While I believe in humans – I meet them all the time – I am less sure about ‘human nature’. Humans are so variable, individually and in comparison to each other, I would find it difficult to pinpoint an essential nature.


  2. You seem to be arguing that if you can see differences between children and adults, or between human beings, then you are justified in ignoring the similarities no matter how obvious they are, even to the ludicrous extent of denying the existence of human nature. (Do you really think that all behaviour is socially acquired? That nobody can ever confidently say “that’s the sort of thing that human beings do”? It would certainly make a lot of those “medical conditions” unidentifiable, if there were no norms of human behaviour to compare them to.)

    With regard to the point about medical and psychological conditions, I see no point in denying that the conditions exist (although some clearly are very dubious) but I doubt that very many conditions would absolve one of moral responsibility for one’s actions. I certainly see little reason to extend the concept of compulsive behaviour to cover more general, commonplace, human weaknesses. Something only becomes truly involuntary if you could never choose not to do it, not even at gunpoint or for a million pound prize. While I am willing to accept the existence of such situations, even in a moral context, they are clearly very, very rare.


  3. “Something only becomes truly involuntary if you could never choose not to do it, not even at gunpoint or for a million pound prize.”

    Smoking is not involuntary in that sense. Is there no such thing as addiction to smoking?


  4. “Smoking is not involuntary in that sense.”

    Or in any sense.

    “Is there no such thing as addiction to smoking?”

    Sorry?


  5. “I certainly see little reason to extend the concept of compulsive behaviour to cover more general, commonplace, human weaknesses. Something only becomes truly involuntary if you could never choose not to do it, not even at gunpoint or for a million pound prize.”

    If I understand this, you are making a link here between ‘compulsive’ and ‘involuntary’. You are saying that something is only truly compulsive when you *must* do it – hence when it is involuntary.
    I am asking you whether there is such a thing as addiction to smoking. Smoking is an entirely voluntary choice, and any rational smoker would undoubtedly stop entirely for a prize of a million pounds. Yet, while smoking is voluntary, we still talk of an addiction. Smokers’ choices are somehow guided by this addiction, while at the same time they still have choice.

    You don’t have to smoke. You can choose not to. Does that mean there is no addiction underlying the behaviour?


  6. It strikes me that a mere argument that people’s actions are not really under our own control is hardly an argument against punishment. If our actions are determined by the society we find ourselves living in, obviously one of the features of that society is how it responds to various sorts of behaviour, and I can’t see any reason a priori to believe that my childhood affects how I act, or that socio-inequality affects how I act, but the current legal system doesn’t have any effect at all.

    Indeed, I’ve read an argument from a strong determinist for capital punishment on that basis – even if the murderer could not have stopped himself from committing the murder, he should be put to death to deter others from murder, and should regard himself as making a sacrifice for society like a soldier sent on a suicide mission to buy his fellow soldiers time to build proper defences (this was an old essay, where the author was clearly thinking of men in the “adult male” context and not the whole of humanity).


  7. Diogenesis,

    The smoking thing is still making no sense to me at all. Obviously a smoker is responsible for smoking. Obviously this doesn’t mean they aren’t addicted.

    What is your point?


  8. It strikes me that a mere argument that people’s actions are not really under our own control is hardly an argument against punishment.

    Punishment is so obviously necessary at some level that even if moral responsibility is thrown out of the window we still might have some form of punishment, but justified for some reason other than desert. We might complain that at the moment this “pseudo-punishment” is less than what offenders deserve, but in other circumstances it could be more than they deserve. For instance, totalitarian regimes have often imprisoned and murdered people for being “disordered” rather than morally at fault. Once you lose the concept of desert there’s no reason that penalties couldn’t be disproportionately harsh rather than disproportionately lenient.


  9. [...] « Human Nature 18 10 2008 [...]


  10. In this post, OldAndrew, you talk about being morally responsible. Unless you are an old-style Protestant (who believed in being ridden by either Satan or God, but still being morally responsible without choice) moral responsibility is generally accepted to come from having free will.

    There are two main ideas of free will. The most common is compatibilism – here I quote Wikipedia:

    “In articulating this crucial proviso, David Hume writes, “this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a prisoner and in chains”.[10] To illustrate their position, compatibilists point to clear-cut cases of someone’s free will being denied, through rap.e, murder, theft, or other forms of constraint. In these cases, free will is lacking not because the past is causally determining the future, but because the aggressor is overriding the victim’s desires and preferences about his own actions. The aggressor is coercing the victim and, according to compatibilists, this is what overrides free will. Thus, they argue that determinism does not matter; what matters is that individuals’ choices are the results of their own desires and preferences, and are not overridden by some external (or internal) force.[9][10] To be a compatibilist, one need not endorse any particular conception of free will, but only deny that determinism is at odds with free will.”

    Do you agree with this, OldAndrew, that determinism and free will are compatible? This says that, yes our actions can be limited by previous variables (determinism) but when we have the liberty of choice we are still exercising free will.

    (The other main option is free will libertarianism. This is less successful, as it denies any determinism at all, and it is quite obvious that previous events affect us presently).


  11. I keep having to go back to the original post to see if it said something like

    “please use the comments feature to post random unrelated topics and I’ll get back to you.”

    I really have no desire to discuss determinism with you. I cannot imagine why you thought I would.


  12. I am not discussing determinism. I am discussing moral responsibility. Is your post not about moral responsibility?

    You are saying that we are morally responsible for our actions because we have free will. You are trying to show that students do have free will, and there are no determining factors that can take away this free will in order to stop students from being morally responsible and therefore deserving of blame and punishment when they do wrong. The determining factors you disagree with include being poor and having needs and so on.

    I am asking you whether you would consider this position to be what is called ‘compatabilism’. This would lead into a discussion of whether ‘compatibilism’ actually allows free will, because some disagree that it does. And… I thought you were asking for more clear disagreements to talk about? And, isn’t it best for others to clarify your position first, as don’t you often complain about a conversation not being about what you are saying at all?

    I am at a loss as to how to disagree with you if I can’t first ask what you agree with to disagree with it.


  13. I never mentioned free will either.


  14. You never mentioned free will? I apologise.

    I do wonder how you could have said this without implicitly communicating that we have free will, though: “Where once being non-judgemental meant refraining from the casting of stones, it now seems to require looking at the obviously guilty and saying “well they couldn’t help themselves”. Temptation can now be a considered a medical or psychological condition.”

    Your post does not mention the words “free will”, but it is definitely about free will. You are saying we have free will, and therefore moral responsibilities. You are saying that you cannot get rid of free will by talking about medical or psychological conditions. This means that discussing free will in the comments section is surely on topic.

    But, perhaps discussing free will is not on topic, because you are not relying on the idea of free will. This would change my reading of your post to: you believing that it is wrong to say “well they couldn’t help themselves” even though, without free will, they could not help themselves.
    This would be a very unpleasant position to hold.


  15. I do wonder how you could have said this without implicitly communicating that we have free will, though

    The point is that I did not mention free will or determinism. Whether I implicitly communicated my beliefs about free will is neither here nor there. It is not what I am discussing, and I would prefer it if you did not use the comments feature of my blog for discussing any and all issues that pass through your head.


  16. In the long comments section to your post on “The Blameless. Part 1: The Young” you said that: “I invite discussion of the arguments and ideas in my blog posts.”

    The idea that ‘people have free will’ is surely in your argument against deterministic claims that people “couldn’t help themselves”. Because of this free will (because people CAN help themselves), you say people are morally responsible.

    So, you did mention free will AND determinism. You might not have used the words, but they are surely part of your argument. If I am wrong, please show me how your argument SEEMS to be talking about these ideas without actually being about them at all. Please show me how people can help themselves without having free will. Please show how free will is not a huge unstated assumption behind this argument that is surely an idea within the argument that can be talked about.

    I do not see how people can disagree with you – which is what you say you want in the comments to “The Blameless. Part 1″, rather than just ‘quibbling over words’ – if they cannot bring your assumptions into question. Otherwise you can simply restate your assumptions over and over again, without allowing people to question them, and establish them through repetition.


  17. The idea that ‘people have free will’ is surely in your argument against deterministic claims that people “couldn’t help themselves”.

    I didn’t mention “deterministic claims” in this post. The argument that people “can’t help themselves” is an argument that they had no choice, not that all choices are pre-determined.

    I do not see how people can disagree with you – which is what you say you want in the comments to “The Blameless. Part 1″, rather than just ‘quibbling over words’ – if they cannot bring your assumptions into question.

    The point is that you are challenging assumptions that are necessary for discussing morality, rather than simply challenging assumptions that are necessary for a particular view about morality. If free will doesn’t exist it doesn’t make my argument wrong, it makes my argument (and any consideration of moral choices) pointless. Didn’t I explain this before?


  18. An odd point you make is that: “If free will doesn’t exist it doesn’t make my argument wrong, it makes my argument (and any consideration of moral choices) pointless.”

    This is an odd point because Determinists don’t make free will not exist (if it does) by denying it. What they do is argue that it does not exist. And their argument is therefore opposed to yours, and therefore determinists think you are wrong for believing in free will. So I’m not sure why a determinist should find your argument ‘pointless’. To give an example:
    An atheist can argue with a theist about the existence of God. Both believe the other is wrong. Whether they believe the other’s argument is ‘pointless’ is an attitude either can take if they want. An atheist might believe a theist’s argument is ‘pointless’ because they are arguing for something that they, the atheist, believe does not exist. But an atheist might think that the real point of the argument is not to establish that God exists, but instead to rationalise an irrational belief based on faith.

    So, to say that free will does not exist is not to label your argument pointless. It is not to deny the possibility of any debate. It is to say you are wrong. (The person who is trying to deny the possibility of a debate is actually you, by saying that a position contrary to your own cannot possibly disagree with you!).
    .

    .

    .
    What would make you say such an odd thing? It is because you believe that: “The point is that you are challenging assumptions that are necessary for discussing morality, rather than simply challenging assumptions that are necessary for a particular view about morality.”

    You are saying that to argue against free will is to throw away morality. So how can any discussion take place? Well, at the very least it could take place by bringing in non-moral ideas of praise, blame, punishment and so on; and instead talking about ethics. Such as the version of blame from Scanlon. So, you would have a free will moral responsibility system, and a different deterministic system. And I don’t see why these two systems couldn’t argue with each other. (In fact, they do).
    Yes, ideas are thrown away that are ‘necessary for discussing morality’. But the argument is about the necessity of throwing these ideas away, because of their lack of truth and of utility, because this idea of morality is wrong.

    I have just come across Betrand Russell’s The Element of Ethics. Having this discussion with you is certainly prompting me to read more about ethics! Here is some selected quotation from section iv, I have added some emphasis which I hope does not detract from the meaning of the text (please read the original if you feel I have doctored it at all http://fair-use.org/bertrand-russell/the-elements-of-ethics/section-iv):
    The importance to ethics of the free-will question is a subject upon which there has existed almost as much diversity of opinion as on the free-will question itself. It has been urged by advocates of free-will that its denial involves the denial of merit and demerit, and that, with the denial of these, ethics collapses… The grounds in favour of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a brief indication of these grounds. The question I am concerned with is not the freewill question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism

    The principle of causality—that every event is determined by previous events, and can (theoretically) be predicted when enough previous events are known—appears to apply just as much to human actions as to other events. It cannot be said that its application to human actions, or to any other phenomena, is wholly beyond doubt; but a doubt extending to the principle of causality must be so fundamental as to involve all science, all everyday knowledge, and everything, or almost everything, that we believe about the actual world. If causality is doubted, morals collapse, since a right action, as we have seen, is one of which the probable effects are the best possible, so that estimates of right and wrong necessarily presuppose that our actions can have effects, and therefore that the law of causality holds… It is said by the advocates of free-will that determinism destroys morals, since it shows that all our actions are inevitable, and that therefore they deserve neither praise nor blame. Let us consider how far, if at all, this is the case. [n. 2: I use freewill to mean the doctrine that not all volitions are determined by causes, which is the denial of determinism. Freewill is often used in senses compatible with determinism, but I am not concerned to affirm or deny it in such senses.]
    The part of ethics which is concerned, not with conduct, but with the meaning of good and bad, and the things that are intrinsically good and bad, is plainly quite independent of freewill. Causality belongs to the description of the existing world, and we saw that no inference can be drawn from what exists to what is good. Whether, then, causality holds always, sometimes, or never is a question wholly irrelevant in the consideration of intrinsic goods and evils. But when we come to conduct and the notion of ought, we cannot be sure that determinism makes no difference. For we saw that the objectively right action may be defined as that one which, of all that are possible under the circumstances, will probably on the whole have the best consequences. The action which is objectively right must therefore be in some sense possible. But if determinism is true, there is a sense in which no action is possible except the one actually performed…

    If we try to state the difference we feel between the case of the lyric poems [explanation: a case of somebody not writing 'em because they cannot write such poems] and the case of the fire [explanation: a case of somebody not rescuing others from a fire because of panic, when you can be held to be able to "acquire the sort of character which will lead them to remember their neighbours in a fire"], it seems to come to this: that we do not hold an act objectively wrong when it would have required that we recognize as a special aptitude in order to think of a better act, and when we believe that the agent did not possess this aptitude. But this distinction seems to imply that thereis not such a thing as a special aptitude for this or that virtue; a view which cannot, I think, be maintained. An aptitude for generosity or for kindness may be as much a natural gift as an aptitude for poetry; and an aptitude for poetry may be as much improved by practice as an aptitude for kindness or generosity. Thus it would seem that there is no sense in which it is possible to think of some actions which in fact we do not think of, but impossible to think of others, except the sense that the ones we regard as possible would have been thought of if a different choice among alternatives actually thought of had been made on some previous occasion. We shall then modify our previous definition of the objectively right action by saying that it is the probably most beneficial among these that occur to the agent at the moment of choice. But we shall hold that, in certain cases, the fact that a more beneficial alternative does not occur to him is evidence of a wrong choice on some previous occasion.
    But since occasions of choice do often arise, and since there certainly is a sense in which it is possible to choose any one of a number of different actions as right and some as wrong. Our previous definitions of objectively right actions and of moral actions still hold, with the modification that, among physically possible actions, only those which we actually think of are to be regarded as possible. When several alternative actions present themselves, it is certain that we can both do which we choose, and chose which we will. In this sense all the alternatives are possible. What determinism maintains is, that our will to choose this or that alternative is the effect of antecedents; but this does not prevent our will from being itself a cause of other effects. And the sense in which different decisions are possible seems sufficient to distinguish some actions as right and some as wrong, some as moral and some as immoral.
    Connected with this is another sense in which, when we deliberate, either decision is possible. The fact that we judge one course objectively right may be the cause of our choosing this course: thus, before we have decided as to which course we think right, either is possible in the sense that either ill result from our decision as to which we think right. This sense of possibility is important to the moralist, and illustrates the fact that determinism does not make moral deliberation futile.
    Determinism does not, therefore, destroy the distinction of right and wrong; and we saw before that it does not destroy the distinction of good and bad: we shall still be able to regard some people as better than others, and some actions as more right than others. But it is said that praise and blame and responsibility are destroyed by determinism. When a madman commits what in a sane man we should call a crime, we do not blame him, partly because he probably cannot judge rightly as to consequences, but partly also because we feel that he could not have done otherwise: if all men are really in the position of the madman, it would seem that all ought to escape blame. But I think the question of choice really decides as to praise and blame. The madman, we believe (excluding the case of wrong judgment as to consequences), did not choose beteen different courses, but was impelled by a blind impulse. The sane man who (say) commits a murder has, on the contrary, either at the time of the murder or at some earlier time, chosen the worst of two or more alternatives that occurred to him; and it is for this we blame him. It is true that the two cases merge into each other, and the madman may be blamed if he has become mad in consequence of self-indulgence. But it is right that the two cases should not be too sharply distinguished, for we know how hard it often is in practice to decide whether people are what is called “responsible for their actions”. It is sufficient that there is a distinction, and that it can be applied easily in most cases, though there are marginal cases which present difficulties. We apply praise or blame, then, and we attribute responsibility, where a man, having to exercise choice, has chosen wrongly; and this sense of praise or blame is not destroyed by determinism.
    Determinism, then, does not in any way interfere with morals. It is worth noticing that freewill, on the contrary, would interfere most seriously, if anybody really believed in it. People never do, as a matter of fact, believe that anyone else’s actions are not determined by motives, however much they may think themselves free. Bradshaw [explanation: a train timetable] consists entirely of predictions as to the actions of engine-drivers; but no one doubts Bradshaw on the ground that the volition of engine-drivers are not governed by motives. If we really believed that other people’s actions did not have causes, we could never try to influence other people’s actions; for such influence can only result if we know, more or less, what causes will produce the actions we desire. If we could never try to influence other people’s actions, no man could try to get elected to Parliament, or ask a woman to marry him: argument, exhortation, and command would become mere idle breath. Thus almost all the actions with which morality is concerned would become irrational, rational action would be wholly precluded from trying to influence people’s volitions, and right and wrong would be interfered with in a way in which determinism certainly does not interfere with them. Most morality absolutely depends upon the assumption that volitions have causes, and nothing in morals is destroyed by this assumption…

    In fact, however, no one really holds that right acts are uncaused. It wouldbe a monstrous paradox to say that a man’s decision ought not to be influenced by his belief as to what is his duty; yet, if he allows himself to decide on an act because he believes it to be his duty, his decision has a motive, i.e. a cause, and is not free in the only sense in which the determinist must deny freedom. It would seem, therefore, that the objections to determinism are mainly attributable to misunderstanding of its purport. Hence, finally it is not determinism but freewill that has subversive consequences. There is therefore no reason to regret that the grounds in favour of determinism are overwhelmingly strong.


  19. Now, that text from Bertrand is very heavy going. Here is something lighter:

    http://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2006/04/30/determinism-and-moral-responsibility/

    [Determinism and] Moral Responsibility

    As you would expect moral responsibility is harder to deal with than the practical issue of punishment. We wonder if it makes sense to simply blame the world for one’s actions (“physics made me do it”). However the natural laws cannot be the cause of an action, although they determine how interactions between particles proceed they do not actually interact with the particles. If an electron is bumped out of its orbit by a photon the cause is the photon, not natural law. Thus the cause of a person’s actions is the biological processes in their brain, not natural laws. Of course these biological processes themselves have causes, namely their earlier states as well as earlier input from the outside world. The primary cause for any state in the biological system in question however is usually an earlier state of that very biological system. In more conventional terms we would say the primary cause of a brain state is earlier brain states. However since we are accepting materialism as one of the premises of this argument this is the same as saying that the person is the cause of their actions. What about those earlier inputs? Well they do contribute somewhat the person’s actions, so perhaps we should say that the person is mainly to blame, although their school teachers (for example) share some of the responsibility because they did not instruct them correctly. This description of the cause of a person’s actions is the same as that which we get when we analyze them under a free will theory, which means that our notions of moral responsibility are not affected by determinism.


  20. This is an odd point because Determinists don’t make free will not exist (if it does) by denying it. What they do is argue that it does not exist. And their argument is therefore opposed to yours, and therefore determinists think you are wrong for believing in free will. So I’m not sure why a determinist should find your argument ‘pointless’.

    Because my argument already assumes that free will exists. It is not an argument about the existence of free will.

    You are the one attempting to change the subject to free will and determinism. If the Battleground Forum was working at the moment I would direct you there.


  21. “Because my argument already assumes that free will exists. It is not an argument about the existence of free will.”

    So, it is an argument that assumes that free will exists.
    Therefore one way of disagreeing with your argument is to say that free will does not exist.

    This is what you do when you come across people who say that “if classes were interesting, then students would not behave”. You, very rightly, say that the assumption that students behave for interesting lessons is wrong, that the assumption that students only misbehave for ‘bad teachers’ is wrong, that the assumption that students all equally care about education and all want to learn is wrong.

    (Thank you, by the way, for answering my argument in the detail that I try to answer yours. It makes me feel very much at home!)


  22. So, it is an argument that assumes that free will exists.
    Therefore one way of disagreeing with your argument is to say that free will does not exist.

    That would be disagreeing with my premise, not my argument itself.

    I’m sure I explained this earlier with examples.

    This is what you do when you come across people who say that “if classes were interesting, then students would not behave”. You, very rightly, say that the assumption that students behave for interesting lessons is wrong, that the assumption that students only misbehave for ‘bad teachers’ is wrong, that the assumption that students all equally care about education and all want to learn is wrong.

    I think you need to get clear in your own mind what an “assumption” is. There is no reason to think that the opinion you mention is based on those other statements having been assumed.


  23. I said: “Therefore one way of disagreeing with your argument is to say that free will does not exist.”

    You said: “That would be disagreeing with my premise, not my argument itself.”

    I haven’t looked at logic for a while, but I can remember a bit about syllogisms. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllogism – “A syllogism… is a kind of logical argument in which one proposition (the conclusion) is inferred from two others (the premises) of a certain form.”
    Please explain how your premises are not part of your argument. Perhaps you are using the word ‘premise’ in a way I am not used to?

    Another way of putting it is this: would I not be responsible for destroying your house if I damaged the foundations? Yet you are saying the foundations and the structure on top of it are totally separate.


  24. The point is that you are not just tearing up the foundations of my house, you are demolishing the whole city, including the bit that you live in.


  25. “The point is that you are not just tearing up the foundations of my house, you are demolishing the whole city, including the bit that you live in.”

    You seem to be wearily accepting that, yes, the assumptions of your argument, which are the premises of your argument, are indeed part of your argument.
    You have now moved on to the claim that by destroying your premises I am destroying everything, including my own. “So stay away from them, they’re sacred!”

    This is just another way of saying ‘you aren’t allowed to question my assumptions’, which is where we started out. I can very well show that your premises can be questioned. For example, your point that accepting determinism over free will would get rid of personal responsibility for one’s actions has already been discussed… at least by me.


  26. Go back to Chesterton’s quote at the start:

    If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

    My point is that I don’t want to argue about the existence of the cat. I am not saying this because I think the existence of cats is sacred. I just think that anybody who enters a discussion about cat-skinning without believing in cats has very little to add to the conversation. One might almost suspect that they were just looking for attention.


  27. DofS

    “…. natural law. Thus the cause of a person’s actions is the biological processes in their brain, not natural laws. Of course these biological processes themselves have causes, namely their …..”

    Reading anyone from late 19th or early 20th century seduces one into their world view that science as they then understood it would very soon explain everything in the world. It never happened.

    Anyone who wants to consider modern 21stC ideas about the biological brain’s role in behaviour or learning or skill should read “The Brain That Changes Itself”. Brilliant neurologist. For some educators, the notion that teaching – wait for it – handwriting is a good, even necessary, idea will come as a bit of a shock. (Dare I say rote learning …. that’s enough for now.) For me it was a quick read – I skipped all the yuk details of operations & experiments where things were put in people’s brains or other bits.

    Importantly for OA’s view and for yours, repeated behaviours and responses are learned and imprinted. So, OA’s argument that schools should intervene when students behave badly becomes more urgent. Students l e a r n what will be rewarded, ignored or punished and the learning in and of itself changes the brain to promote repetition of the behaviours.

    The easiest way to understand the point is to think of playing tennis or the piano as learned behaviour. Striking balls or keys in certain ways produces predictable results. You repeat the desired ones, you train yourself to reduce or eliminate the unwanted ones. Eventually, you can play Three Blind Mice without looking at the music or the keyboard, the ball sails straight over the net and inside the service court.

    If students can ride a skateboard or sing or shoot a goal or find their way home after school, they can learn behaviours of other kinds. They already do – some unlearning of bad behaviours is needed.


  28. […] Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with th…  […]



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